Egyptian Foreign Minister Butros Ghali, apparently attempting to soften the impact of President Carter's U.N. turnabout, said today that the original U.S. vote condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank was the true expression of American policy.
Ghali suggested at a news conference that Carter's later disavowal of the U.S. vote last Saturday was intended to improve his standing among Jewish voters in the upcoming presidential elections, even though Carter portrayed the move as resulting from an error in administration communications. p
The incident has caused puzzlement and consternation among some of Egypt's top Foreign Ministry officials. Ghali and others regard Israel's West Bank settlements as a major obstacle to bringing Palestinians into the autonomy negotiations among Egypt, Israel and the United States.
Arab nations opposing Egypt's role in the autonomy talks regard the U.S. attitude on settlements as a test of Carter's intentions. Any sign that he is willing to bend to Israeli pressure tends to confirm President Anwar Sadat's Arab opponents in their opposition and increase the isolation of Egyptian diplomacy.
Egyptian officials thus were pleased when the United States joined 14 other countries in a unanimous Security Council vote criticizing Israel on the settlements and implicitly challenging Israeli claims of sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, captured from Jordan in 1967. Ghali issued a statement Sunday saying the U.N. vote amounted to endorsement of Egyptian policy and American participation demonstrated that Washington is a "full partner" with Egypt in opposition to the settlements.
In previous Security Council votes on similar resolutions, the United States has abstained, contending that although the settlements are illegal, their future should be decided in negotiations. Carter's statement Monday reiterated this policy.
The White House disavowal prompted angry reactions from several hard-line Arab countries and the Palestine Liberation Organization. sThe Syrian government in particular charged that it showed Carter is unable to deal even-handedly with the Middle East because of support for Israel in the U.S./electorate.
There was no public reaction from Saudi Arabia, a key Arab source of support for the United States whose attitude is regarded as singularly important. Saudi prestige means its policies influence other Arab nations and no Middle East settlement is likely to succeed without Saudi endorsement.
Moreover, the Saudi government has made it clear that an imminent decision on oil output depends in large measure on U.S. Middle East policy. Washington had asked the Saudis to continue pumping 9.5 million barrels a day.
Ghali said, nevertheless, that the uproar over Carter's retraction of the U.N. vote is being overdone. He predicted that the United States will not lose credibility among its Arab allies over this incident alone, unless in the long run it also fails to win concessions from Israel on the settlements and other issues connected to the autonomy talks.
"I believe this has been exaggerated," he said. "After all, what is important is the resolution that was adopted by the Security Council."
After reminding reporters of previous U.S. declarations that the settlements are illegal in Washington's eyes, he continued: "And if you can add to that the fact that you have an election year, then you can have an explanation for this . . . I believe this is related to the elections."
This implied that in the Egyptian assessment, Carter remained loyal to the policy as expressed in the Security Council vote but issued his retraction to fuzz the issue for American voters, particularly Jewish groups upset at what they regarded as a shift against Israel.
Ghali said Egypt regards the United States as morally committed to the resolution's provisions calling for dismantlement of the settlement. But he suggested this would have to come after negotiations.
"If the settlement are illegal, then they should be dismantled," he said. "How they should be dismantled . . . is another thing. It is the difference between the principle and the execution of the principle.This has to be negotiated after creation of the Palestinian authority."
The autonomy negotiations are aimed at setting up a Palestinian self-rule authority that, in the Egyptian view, should have power to negotiate with the Israeli government over the fate of the West Bank settlements. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, however, has insisted that Israel has a sovereign right to establish civilian settlements on the territory, occupied since the 1967 war.